Wednesday 3 June 2020

Manzoni on the Riots

The Betrothed, as I've noted before, has some contemporary resonance as a 'plague novel' (though, as I've also pointed out, there is a great gulf between bubonic plague and Covid-19). The chapters devoted to the plague in Milan are brilliant examples of Manzoni's powerful historical imagination. They are well worth reading for their own sake, but certainly have something to tell us about what plague, or a perceived plague, does to human beings. And there are other parts of The Betrothed that also have contemporary resonance, and something to tell us – notably the chapters that revolve around the 'bread riots' in Milan.
  As rioting and looting engulf parts of several American cities, accompanied by mindless violence and the destruction of innocent people's businesses, Manzoni's cool words ring true:

'The destruction of sifting machines and bread bins, the wrecking of bakeries and the mobbing of bakers are not really the best methods of ensuring long life to a plenteous supply of bread. But that is one of those philosophical subtleties which a crowd can never grasp. Even without being a philosopher, however, a man will sometimes grasp it straight away, while the whole matter is new to him and he can see it with fresh eyes. It is later, when he has talked and heard others talk about it, that it becomes impossible for him to understand. The thought had struck Renzo at the very beginning, as we have seen, and it kept coming back to him now. But he kept it to himself; for when he looked at all the people around him he could not imagine any of them saying: "Dear brother, if I go wrong, pray correct me, and I will be duly grateful."'

Manzoni understands well how mobs work: how they form, the various cross-currents at work within them, and the way certain operators can exploit these cross-currents to achieve their ends:

'In popular uprisings there are always a certain number of men, inspired by hot-blooded passions, fanatical convictions, evil designs, or a devilish love of disorder for its own sake, who do everything they can to make things take the worst possible turn. They put forward or support the most merciless projects, and fan the flames every time they begin to subside. Nothing ever goes too far for them; they would like to see rioting continue without bounds and without an end. But to counterbalance them, there are always a certain number of other men, equally ardent and determined, who are doing all they can in the opposite direction, inspired by friendship or fellow-feeling for the people threatened by the mob, or by a reverent and spontaneous horror of bloodshed and evil deeds. God bless them for it!'

There seem to be rather too many of the first sort at work in America just now.


  1. I've tried to read Manzoni but found it not very pleasurable The passages you quote are great but I'm still wondering if it was an actual pleasure or a bit of a plod to read the whole book?

  2. Well I guess it's all subjective in the end. For my part I certainly found it the most enjoyable 19th-century historical novel I've read. I can imagine a bad translation (maybe a 19th-century one) making it much harder...

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